Library: a place of healing for northeast Birmingham

Library: a place of healing for northeast Birmingham

A library can be the heart of a community. For the northeast Birmingham community, the library is now a source of healing from the injustice the community faces.

The air within the northeast Birmingham and Tarrant neighborhoods has been polluted by Drummond Co.’s Alabama Byproducts Corporation plant, or ABC Coke, for years. This type of plant burns coal, which spews out pollutants such as benzene and heavy metals into the air. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, these plants can cause asthma, cancer and lung diseases. A person’s home should be a safe haven. Instead, the homes within the northeast Birmingham community are exposed to toxic chemicals, harming the residents and the local environment.

For years, Birmingham residents tried to bring awareness to and stop ABC Coke. In January 2021, the Southern Law Environmental Law Center, or SELC, and the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution, or GASP, reached a settlement agreement to better monitor the ABC Coke plant and to offer grants to community members for air monitors and community gardens.

“Requiring rigorous monitoring and reporting, and the Jefferson County Department of Health’s commitment to put all facilities’ files on a public database, will provide significantly more transparency for communities and the ability to quickly identify any violations going forward,” SELC Senior Attorney Sarah Stokes said. “These checks and balances are essential to ending ABC Coke’s long history of violations.”

Despite the better transparency and resources for community members, this northeast Birmingham community is still in harm’s way.

This is where the Birmingham Public Library is stepping in. After seeing how so many of its community members are in need, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham awarded a $20,000 grant to the Friends Foundation of the Birmingham Public Library. In the beginning of 2022 for at least three months, the Birmingham Public Library will host programs at the North Birmingham and Inglenook branches to educate locals on the physical and mental effects of environmental racism.

These programs are intended for community members living near the ABC Coke plant, particularly Black women and children. The programs will be led by medical and health experts. With learning sessions, on-site interviews and screenings, the program will help community members learn about their health and establish a healthier life in a community filled with pollution. There will also be materials participants can take home to help make their daily lives healthier.

To make it easier for community members to attend, the program will include dinner.

“As members of the community and based on BPL’s historically successful outreach efforts into these neighborhoods, we understand that programs offered after work—and with a meal—have much greater chance of success than those that require attendees to find and pay for childcare and dinner,” the Birmingham Public Library said in its grant application.

Part of the settlement with ABC Coke was $387,500 awarded to the Jefferson County Department of Health due to the violation of the Clean Air Act. The department established the Jefferson County Department of Health Public Health Advised Fund to give back this money to the communities affected by the plant.

“I am glad to see these settlement funds being used for the health benefit of the community,” Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson said in a statement to the Birmingham Public Library. “On behalf of the Jefferson County Department of Health and the Board of Health, I wish to thank the Birmingham Public Library for their work to empower people with knowledge and tools that can lead to healthier lives.”